It was May 25, 1798, and DeBraak, a sloop in the British Royal Navy, sailed into the mouth of the Delaware River. DeBraak had been separated from a 10-ship convoy since April 1, when it left to investigate an enemy sail somewhere near the Azores. Sometime during the interim, DeBraak had captured a Spanish ship. Now both ships were on track, and as a pilot boarded the DeBraak to guide her up the river, Capt. James Drew told him, “I’ve had good luck.”
His luck was about to change.
A sudden storm, now dubbed a “micro blast,” struck the coast, slamming DeBraak onto its side. The vessel plummeted 80 feet below the surface. Forty-seven men went down, including Capt. Drew, who’s buried at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes.
Fast forward to May 25, 2012. In a shed in Cape Henlopen State Park, visitors snap photos of a splintered length of copper-trimmed wood. This is the hull of DeBraak, which has been cloistered from public view since 1986, when it was wrenched from the bay’s murky depths in a salvor’s last ditch—and futile—effort to find treasure.
Raising the profile of the HMS De Braak shipwreck
Dr. Chuck Fithian previews about the HMS De Braak lecture-tour series.
For more than 20 years, its primary visitors have been its caretakers, namely Charles “Chuck” H. Fithian, curator of archaeology. Fithian started working with the state in the mid-1980s, when the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs was first assigned to help with early collection management.
But beginning June 4, the public can view the hull during an exclusive lecture-tour series. The series, which runs through Oct. 1, will be held on Mondays, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes. Each session includes van transportation to the hull’s current resting place in the park.
Why offer tours 20 years after the hull took up residence in Lewes? The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs mission under Gov. Jack Markell includes creating more cultural opportunities for Delawareans and making artifacts more accessible to the public, said division director Timothy A. Slavin.
The state’s collection includes more than 90,000 historic artifacts and 4 million archeological artifacts, “none of which is more compelling than what you are about to see today,” Slavin told the group preparing to view the hull.
Nearly 30 years after DeBraak was found, there is still sustained interest in the ship, said Fithian. “DeBraak is the ‘everyman’ of the 1790s,” he said. “She gives us the opportunity to look inside the Royal Navy at the time of its heyday.” It is a detailed glimpse, he added, that heretofore had been unparalleled.
The Birth of a Legend
Originally a Dutch single-masted cutter, DeBraak in 1795 was docked in an English port when war broke out between Great Britain and the Dutch Batavian Republic. In those days, any enemy ship became a prize for the taking.
The English turned DeBraak into a two-masted brig—a fast sloop-of-war. (Consequently, some call it “His Majesty’s Brig,” or HMB; others dub it “His Majesty’s Sloop,” or HMS.) The additional mast may have made the ship top heavy. Along with the mast and new canons, DeBraak’s hull received a copper sheathing, then state-of-the-art technology, to protect it from shipworms and barnacle growth.
When the ship went down on May 25, 1798, three Spanish prisoners reportedly floated to shore on a chest, now part of the state’s collection. The men paid for rooms with gold coins and spoke of a treasure. As the years passed, some believed DeBraak visited the Caribbean while separated from the convoy and found gold, silver and other valuables.
From July to September in 1798, the British tried to raise the ship but failed. They weren’t the only ones. In the next 100 years, other touted efforts were equally unsuccessful. The ship seemingly disappeared. In 1984, Reno, Nevada-based Sub-Sal sought a treasure to rival the mother lode found on a Florida wreck. DeBraak fit the bill. The company used side-scan sonar to find a wreck off Delaware’s coast. Divers brought up a ring with an inscription that belonged to Capt. Drew. It was DeBraak.
The two-year salvage effort yielded footwear, toothbrushes, cannonballs and barrel pieces. There is pottery, a sailor’s wool hat, a tea set, 16 cannons, muskets, pistols and saltcellars. There is a bottle bearing the word “ketchup,” a makeshift sauce used to disguise the taste of salt-preserved food. In short, there is much to do with the everyday life of those aboard an 18th-century warship.
But there was no treasure. So on Aug. 11, 1986, a steel-and-wood cradle lifted the hull from the water. When a brake failed, waves pummeled the wood, and as the lift resumed, the hull tilted, spilling sludge and artifacts into the sea. And, still, there was no cache.
In 1992, Sub-Sal sold more than 20,000 artifacts and the hull to the state for $300,000. The company’s much-criticized handling of the project led to the federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, which gives a state the authority to claim and manage abandoned shipwrecks on the state’s submerged lands.
Return to DeBraak
In the years since the ship’s founding, the state has spent untold hours documenting, cataloging, researching and analyzing the artifacts, an effort involving archeologists, historians, material culture specialists, scholars around the world and physicists. The artifacts are so wide-ranging and revealing that director Peter Weir viewed them to gain information for his film “Master and Commander,” about an 18th century Navy captain (portrayed by Russell Crowe) and his crew.
Most the artifacts are stored in a Dover warehouse. During the summer lecture series, Fithian will bring samples for participants to see. At the preview event, he donned white gloves to cradle a bottle that once held citrus juice to guard against scurvy.
He also held a box containing a wool cap, known as a Welsh wig, only the second such cap recovered from an English shipwreck. A flintlock-firing mechanism, made by gun manufacturer Henry Nock, is dated 1795. It’s the earliest example of the technology found at a Royal Navy shipwreck site.
Visitors will be most intrigued by the hull, which receives four baths a day to keep the wood from drying out, which would speed decay. Water drips from the jagged edges of wood, down the verdigris copper and onto the concrete floor. It’s an eerie yet impressive sight.
The division’s goal is to stabilize the hull and prepare it for permanent conservation. It’s hoped that one day it will join the other artifacts in a maritime museum. Currently, there are no firm plans for such a project, Slavin said.
Meanwhile, historians and archeologists will continue to study DeBraak, which has spawned at least two master’s theses and one doctoral dissertation. “The DeBraak,” Fithian said, “still has secrets to tell.”